Saturday, February 14, 2009

Five Essentials of Good Customer Service

Whether you are an author sitting at a folding table in the hot sun trying to sell your books; a teacher trying to please students, parents and administration; or a satellite TV installer trying to keep himself in business---you have customers. How you treat those customers impacts how well you succeed at your job.

At age sixteen, I learned from the best. I was lucky enough to be employed at a cafeteria-style restaurant that excelled in customer service. Bishops Cafeteria was one of the busiest restaurants in town. Not only did they treat their customers well, they had food to die for! Everything was made from scratch, from the country biscuits to the bleu cheese dressing to the signature Chocolate Ambrosia Pie. (Those of you over age thirty from the Midwest know what I’m talking about.)

As a customer, this is what you could expect. You get in line, which sometimes would stretch all the way through the dining room, out the door, and around the corner. If you had a baby with you, a children’s hostess would approach you with a high chair on wheels, a baby bib, a sipper cup, baby utensils, and a cracker for your baby to gnaw on while waiting. The hostess would push your tray along the line for you, so that you could attend to your baby. If you didn’t have a baby, a tray carrier would approach you farther down the line to assist you while you made your choices. There were specialized attendants at each station along the line---the silverware attendant, the salad server, (where I started out!) the entrée attendant, the vegetable disher-upper, the dessert displayer, the beverage pourer and finally the cashier. Did you pay the cashier? Nope she simply gave you a ticket to pay to another cashier by the door. You didn’t pay until your meal was over, ensuring satisfaction.

After the tray carrier unloaded your tray upon the table, she would ask if there was anything she forgot to get for you. If after being seated, you noticed a need, you simply turned on a mini-light at your table, indicating that you needed service. A server would rush to your table to help. During the course of your meal, a dedicated beverage server roamed the dining room, automatically refilling coffee, water and iced tea. If you desired to leave a tip for someone after your meal, a friendly Bishops employee reminded you, “I’m sorry, but we have a No Tipping policy.”

With such service, I learned as a teen the importance of serving a customer well. Teens who didn’t quite catch on were simply fired. Bishops paid well and the hours suited teen life so most young employees caught on quickly.

After Bishops, I worked in other customer-related fields--managing an audiologist’s office, leading a team of customer relations experts at a computer company, and managing a cell phone office to name a few. I used many of the skills I learned as a young adult at Bishops to garner those organizations excellent customer care reputations.

Below are listed some of the critical essentials of customer care.

1. Most importantly, you must really care.

If you don’t want to be at work, or if you hate your job, the customer knows. You must go to work every day, truly having a heart-felt care for your customer as another human being. No customer wants to have a problem. Every customer wants a solution to their need or want.

The rules for showing customers that you care are the same for showing your spouse or child that you care. Smile. Ask sincere questions. Remember his name. Send out a follow-up “thank you” email. If you have a storefront, have a mini-fridge filled with drinks and a dish of chocolates that your customer can snack on while she waits. Open the door. Smile again and again. Repeat her question to make sure you have understood. Remember his personal details.

At the cell phone store I managed, I gained a loyal customer, and he referred many more, simply because I had a knack for memorizing a customer’s cell phone number. When he would walk in, I would say, “Hi Mr. H! Is your cell phone number still xxx-xxxx?”

In dealing with difficult phone-in customers at the computer company, I assuaged many an irritable customer by saying something like, “And how is that children’s book that you are writing coming along?” Or “Last October when we spoke, you were preparing for your daughter’s wedding. How did that go?” Keep notes! Care!

2. Be honest.

You must show integrity in everything that you do. Do you project integrity when you go to work in a mini-skirt that barely covers your bum? (Hooters employees excepted.) Do you project integrity when you change your story from customer to customer? (They talk, trust me.) Do you honestly tell a customer when your product will not meet his needs? Or are you so hungry for a buck that you will say anything to get the sale?

The only way to project honesty is to be honest. It’s not something you can fake.

3. If you have employees, make sure they represent you well.

I have had to fire employees over the years who refused to represent our company well. Your reputation is vital, more vital than making sure a sub-par employee has a job. You shouldn’t keep an employee who says to your customer, “Dude—that’s a stupid decision!” Or an employee who tells your customer, “I would love to help you, but we close in fifteen minutes and what you need will take at least thirty.”

When I worked in a mall, I once boycotted the food court because of employees who seemed bent on destroying their employer’s business. Here are just two of the many incidents.

I walked up to the counter of a shop that sold different kinds of flavored popcorn. I had a hankering for some hot caramel corn that day. An employee sat in the back area reading a book while I waited and waited. I could see him glancing up at me a few times, probably hoping that I would just go away. I should have left but by then, it had become a showdown that I was determined to win. Finally, he let out a huge dramatic sigh, and came forward to the counter. Did he even ask me what I wanted? Nope. Not Mr. Friendly. He stared at me, forcing me to initiate the conversation. He handed me my bag of caramel corn, not once speaking to me. Having done his duty, he skulked to the back area and picked up his book.

Daughter Megan was just a toddler when I went to the ice cream stand in the mall. A teen-age girl waited on me, also just staring. Not a “Good afternoon! What can I get for you?” Not a “Thanks for stopping by. Our special today is…” Just a stare. Just an expectation for me, the customer to make all the effort. I told her that I wanted the ice cream cone that looked like Cookie Monster. She did well. She picked up the Cookie Monster ice cream cone and wrapped it in a napkin. But then she handed me the $16.89 in change all wadded up in a ball, pressed against the cone, with blue ice cream dripping into my bills. I reached for the cone with two hands, trying to grab both the cone and the soggy money. Not being as skilled as she was, I dropped coins all over the counter. Did Super Employee come to the rescue, saying, “I’m so sorry!” and helping me pick up all the change? Are you kidding? She ignored the whole incident and went back to her chair in the corner.

If you have employees or anyone who represents you, make sure they honor your reputation as well as you do.

4. Over-perform.

Give more than your customers expect. If you have an e-book for sale, throw in a smaller PDF of something that you’ve written, just as an extra. If you write hardbound books, make sure you’re inserting a free bookmark with your website address attached. (I have an author-friend who does this because she knows that we readers are always short on bookmarks and will resort to toilet tissue or a gum wrapper if handy.) If you promise a shopper that her altered suit will be ready by Friday, do your darndest to have that suit done on Thursday.

A cell phone customer of mine once had to cancel service with us, and go to a competitor. Her boss decided to pay for her cell phone service, but he had a contract already with someone else so she had to follow. I spoke with her after she had signed up with our competition.

She said, “I was so disappointed. I asked them how to use my voicemail and the sales rep said, ‘Here ya go,’ and handed me a pamphlet. I guess I was a little spoiled at your office. When I asked your employee how to use my voicemail, she took me to a table, sat me down and proceeded to show me step by step what to do. She set up my password for me, and then sat with me while I recorded my message. She even programmed my voicemail number into my phone for me so that all I had to do was push one button to get my messages. It’s those little things that really make a difference.”

True. Remember that. It’s those little things, those extra small efforts that don’t cost you much, but mean the world to your customers. Throw in the cardstock bookmark that cost you 40 cents to make. Offer to take your elderly customer’s purchases to his car when it’s raining. Sneak a 20% off coupon into your customer’s bag as they leave. Do more than what they expect.

5. There are two kinds of pride---cherish one and ditch the other!

When I was in high school, our football players did not have their names printed on the back of their jerseys, which caused the announcers no end of consternation. Instead, each player had one small word emblazoned across his shoulder blades: PRIDE.

“Pride” was a subtle reminder to always behave in a way that will make your mama happy.

Your business should be the same. You should conduct all transactions as if you’re wearing the invisible PRIDE jersey. Whether it’s pride in arranging a lily in a funeral arrangement or pride in the fact that every customer in your store is greeted within three seconds, the result is the same—you will have a business you can feel good about.

What kind of pride should you ditch? The kind that says “don’t bring complaints to me because it will hurt my feelings.”

Back we go to the notorious mall food court. A friend and I went to a sandwich shop for lunch. My favorite sandwich was the pepperoni pizza French bread sub. Mmmm. I had ordered it many times before.

On this day, I sat down to eat and brought the sub to my lips, only to be greeted with the stench of rotting meat. I had my friend sniff it too. She gagged and said, “Oh, you have to take that back!”

I did. I went back to the server and brought it to her attention. She did not respond as I had hoped.

Server: That meat is not rotten.

Me: No, seriously, it is. I’ve had this before and it’s always been good. Today though, the meat is rotten. You can smell it if you like.

Server: I don’t need to smell it. I know it’s not rotten. I’ve been making sandwiches all noon. It’s just fine.

Me: Well, I cannot eat this sandwich.

Server: So I suppose you’re just trying to get a free sandwich, is that it? You want your money back, is that it?

Well, by that time I wanted no sandwich from there, so I opted for my money back. Never went there again, all because the employee thought I was insulting her personally. She forgot to cherish the pride in her work, and ditch the pride that kept her from serving her customers effectively.

Daughter Megan manages a customer service center. She hosted the company’s other employees when they visited her from the Philippines. She treated them to lunch at a local malt shop, spending between $200-$300 each day.

One day Megan ordered a pistachio shake. Normally it was a bright green shade and tasted like pistachio pudding. This time, the shake was cream colored and tasted like vanilla. She took it back and said that she did not receive the shake she ordered.

Server: That is a pistachio shake.

Megan: I’ve been eating here all week and have gotten a pistachio shake before. This is not the same.

Server (instead of asking questions): That is a pistachio shake.

Megan: Have you changed it since yesterday? That is not usually what I get when I order a pistachio shake.

Server: If you don’t like it, call the owner.

Megan got right on the phone and called the owner. Did he try to make things right? Did he apologize? “If my employee says it’s a pistachio shake, it’s a pistachio shake! You’re not getting anything else, so stop bothering us about it!”

Megan, in an effort not to bother the malt shop, spent $200-$300 a day for the next five working days, elsewhere.

If only they had ditched the pride that says, “You think my meat is bad! You insulted my pistachio shake!” and kept the pride that says, “I will do whatever it takes to make my customer happy.”


In a world where customer service nightmares are the norm, two customer service fantasies became reality. I will name them, because they deserve all the good attention they get.

Manti House Inn
A few years ago, my husband and I wanted to go out to dinner for our anniversary. We chose an upscale restaurant in our area, the kind that is usually reserved for special occasions. We had never eaten there before, but were anxious to try it out. I called ahead, asking what time they closed. 9:00 p.m., I was told.

Tim and I arrived at 8:30. We waited and waited to be acknowledged. Finally, we could hear an argument going on between the waitress and the cook.

Cook: I am not serving anyone else tonight! I want to go home.

Waitress: Well we just had two more people come in.

Cook: Tough. Tell them we’re closed.

Waitress, walking up front to greet us: Hi, I am so sorry, but we are closed.

Me: But I just called and was told you are open until 9:00.

Waitress: That is true but we stop serving at 8:30 and it is now 8:40.

Me: Yes, but we were here at 8:30, waiting.

Waitress: OK, I’ll go talk to the cook and see if we can get you in.

Tim and I heard the two of them arguing again, the cook saying she was not working any more that night and the waitress pleading with her. In embarrassment, we left without waiting for the verdict.

I mentioned the incident to our hairdresser while Jeremiah was getting his hair cut.

The next night I received a phone call from a different cook at the restaurant.
She apologized for the behavior of the first cook and asked for more information from me. When I told her that the waitress said that they close at 9:00 but stop serving at 8:00, she was appalled. “No, that is not true. We seat people all the way until 9:00.” She again said how sorry she was, and asked my permission to relate the incident to the restaurant owner.

In a few minutes she called back with an offer of a free meal for my husband and me, if only we would give them a second chance. We just had to let her know which night we would be attending.

On the appointed night, we were treated like royalty. The owner himself came to the table to apologize and told us to make sure we ordered what we wanted, without regard to expense. The waitress hovered nearby all evening and then insisted we splurge on dessert. Even though they insisted no tip was necessary, we left one anyway.

I have since told many people about how well we were treated. We have eaten there again, and have also bought gift certificates so others could eat there. What if the owner had reacted the way the malt shop owner had?

Best Buy
Two years ago Megan was given $10,000 by her employer to go buy Christmas gifts for the employees.

Not wanting to carry $10,000 in her pocket, she opened a special Christmas fund account at the bank. Because the bank could only issue her some temporary checks before Christmas, Megan called Best Buy and CC (a company that shall remain nameless) to see if they would accept her temporary checks. This was important to Megan because both of those stores are 75 miles away. It was important to get things settled ahead of time.

Both companies said yes, they would accept the temporary checks. However, when Megan arrived, both companies told her they would NOT accept the temporary checks.

One company ended up with $10,000 worth of business that day.

The manager at CC told Megan, “There is no way someone from our store would have told you that we accept temporary checks. You must have gotten it wrong.” Good one. Blame the customer. When Megan insisted that someone did tell her that she could use them, she was told, “You must have misunderstood. There’s nothing we can do for you.”

The manager at Best Buy told Megan, “I am so sorry if that’s what one of our employees told you. Accepting temporary checks is not something we can do. We will do everything in our power to make sure that something like this does not happen again. Please accept our apologies for the misunderstanding.”

Megan drove all the way home, got the cash out of the bank and drove back up to Best Buy and spent $10,000. She explained to the Best Buy manager why she chose them over CC, and thanked him. He was very appreciative.

This year, Megan went back to Best Buy. When she walked into the store she asked for the manager. She said, “ I am going to be spending $15,000 in your store today. At each counter I go to, to pick out merchandise, I would prefer not to have to wait in line.”

The manager immediately assigned an escort to her. She had speedy service at each counter. At checkout her escort took her to a no-waiting line, then left. The cashier however, told Megan that he could not ring her up because he was not authorized to ring up laptops. He told her to go to another line. The escort reappeared and gave the cashier immediate authority to ring up the purchases and said, “Make sure she is happy when she leaves.”

Several employees loaded her car for her. They each thanked her for the chance to be part of her buying frenzy.

I hear CC is going bankrupt.

So whether you are an owner or an employee, have a storefront or a cyberspace mall, are selling a product or yourself, the choice is yours. You can adhere to the Five Essentials of Good Customer Service and succeed, or you can cry, “You insulted my sandwich” and accept the consequences.

[Do you have a customer service nightmare or good experience to share? I want to hear about it! Either post a comment here, or email me at foreignquang AT gmail DOT com]

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